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The Discourse of Tibetan Women’s

Empowerment Activists1

Hamsa Rajan

(University of Oxford,
Dept. of Social Policy and Intervention)


ince the 1980s, the discourse of suzhi (素质), or ‘human qual-
ity,’ has been pervasive in China (Kipnis, 2007; Murphy,
2004). According to this discourse, individuals’ quality, or
suzhi, is linked to the nation’s strength, and is a product of
the extent to which individuals are civilized and modern (Jacka, 2009;
Judd, 2002; Murphy, 2004). According to suzhi discourse, improving
one’s quality requires discipline and single-minded diligence; high
quality is associated with the educated, wealthy, and urban; and
those with high quality are the ones who succeed in a competitive
market economy (Jacka, 2009; Judd, 2002; Kipnis, 2007; Murphy,
2004). Moreover, as Kipnis states, “the notion of ‘lacking quality’ is
used to mock or discriminate” (2007, p. 388). As Jacka further de-
scribes, “The supposed low suzhi of migrants…is read from their
speech, clothes, and bodily comportment” (2009, p. 531).
Judd’s analysis of the work of various branches of the All-China
Women’s Federation in the 1990s reveals the Federation officers at-
tempted to raise the quality of rural women by providing rural
women with training in vocational skills. Federation officers under-
stood education and training, leading to “competitive entrepreneuri-
al success,” as raising women’s quality (Judd, 2002, p. 44). Federation
officers additionally believed that “increasing women’s quality will
win respect for women and thereby raise women’s social status” (p.
24). Other state discourses around women’s status have similarly

    I would like to express gratitude to the following organizations for generously
providing grants in support of this research: the Association for Asian Studies,
the Frederick Williamson Memorial Fund, the University of Oxford China Cen-
tre, the Department of Social Policy and Intervention at the University of Oxford,
and St. Hilda’s College.  
Hamsa Rajan, “The Discourse of Tibetan Women's Empowerment Activists”, Revue d’Etudes
Tibétaines, no. 33, October 2015, pp. 127-153.
128 Revue d'Etudes Tibétaines

asserted women’s emancipation is a matter of women’s own indi-

vidual skills, ability, and effort. According to this notion, women
must abandon “the old attitudes of subservience and doubt about
their own abilities” while “self-emancipation involves women im-
proving themselves based on their individual skills and effort.” Self-
confidence on the part of women as well as effort and skill, obtained
via a process of “self-development through education,” are thus con-
sidered necessary for women’s emancipation (Leung, 2003, p. 371).
In a line of argument similar to the suzhi and state discourses de-
scribed above, the Tibetan women’s empowerment activists inter-
viewed for the current study argue that women’s empowerment is a
matter of individual women’s skills and professional, intellectual, or
economic competence. The activists focus on improving women's
education, health care, and training as prerequisites or a means to
obtaining this competence. Like the Federation officers described by
Judd, the women’s empowerment activists of the current study be-
lieve economic and professional success will automatically improve
women’s standing in society. In fact, many of the activists argue this
is the only factor that is crucial to the question of Tibetan women’s
social status. Like suzhi discourse, the women’s activists of the cur-
rent study elide structural and wider societal factors in oppression,
preferring instead to argue that if women suffer from low status, this
situation has resulted from individual women’s lack of competence.
The arguments of some of the activists, like many of the proponents
of suzhi discourse, then, include a heavy dose of victim-blaming, as-
sociating poor economic success, lack of prominence in society, and
powerlessness within the household with individuals’ own character
and competence flaws rather than with structural and power-based
inequalities (Jacka, 2009; Kipnis, 2007; Murphy, 2004).2
It may be important to note that the women’s empowerment activists of the
current study did not use the Chinese term suzhi, nor did they, for the most part,
use a term which might be considered its Tibetan equivalent (!་#ས་). Secondly,
while there are many similarities between suzhi discourse and the discourse of
the current study’s women’s empowerment activists, the activists do not hold to
the priorities of the Chinese state nor are they focused on exactly the same social
problems. Since suzhi discourse has been used as a tool to mask and promote un-
fair economic practices, as well as a tool to enhance citizens’ acceptance of gov-
ernmental policies they might otherwise resent (Jacka, 2009; Kipnis, 2007;
Murphy, 2004), it should be noted that the current study’s activists do not fall in
line with suzhi discourse in these ways. Thus, rather than a wholesale appropria-
tion of suzhi discourse, the women’s activists have drawn on a Chinese discur-
sive environment which emphasizes civilized, modern behavior as well as indi-
vidual discipline (Jacka, 2009) to arrive at similar but not entirely identical con-

The Discourse of Tibetan Women 129

Recent Chinese history has seen women’s emancipation tied with

both the modernity of the Chinese nation and its strength. During
the late Qing dynasty, the Republican era, and the May Fourth
movement, women’s emancipation was deemed necessary to coun-
teract the nation’s weakness and to enhance the nation’s ability to
ward off colonizers and govern itself. Hershatter describes the turn
of the twentieth century in China as “an atmosphere of national cri-
sis” (2004, p. 1029). The activists of the current study express a sense
of crisis for Tibetan society as well. Tibetan communities have found
themselves in a rapidly modernizing world in which urbanization
and Sinicization are ever-present realities. According to informants,
these forces are threatening to cause the disappearance of Tibetan
culture, to annihilate the basis for a distinct Tibetan identity alto-
gether. Activists describe a social context in which Tibetans’ aware-
ness of traditional forms of knowledge is on a precipice, in danger of
irreversible decline and in need of emergency protection measures.3
A prevalent feeling appears to be that social change is often indica-
tive of Sinicization, rather than indicative of development in a Tibet-
an way and on Tibetan terms. In this context, activists appear to be-
lieve women must join men to become professionally successful,
because this will help to strengthen Tibetan society as a whole, al-
lowing Tibetans to compete in an increasingly marketized and Han-
dominated world, and thereby have the power to survive as a dis-
tinct ethnic group which preserves Tibetan culture and identity.
In the context of crisis in which Republican-era reformers found
themselves, women’s education was promoted, because educated
women were deemed to make good mothers, and good mothers
were considered necessary for a strong nation (Hershatter, 2004).
Similarly, in the context of crisis in which the Tibetan activists of the
current study find themselves, women’s education is advocated as a
means of strengthening the nationality by creating mothers who are
competent in instructing the next generation. Republican-era reform-
ers also tended to subordinate feminist priorities to those of the na-
tion at large (Hershatter, 2004), a pattern which is found among the
current study’s activists as well.
The discourse of the women’s empowerment activists repeatedly
revolve around deep contradictions, contradictions which are at
times so glaring that they involve, for example, an activist defending
the very forms of women’s oppression which she is trying to change.
Literature on discourses prevalent in recent Chinese history also re-
veal deep contradictions, such as Maoist state discourse asserting
The disappearance of the Tibetan language is a particular point of concern that is
commonly voiced by many.

130 Revue d'Etudes Tibétaines

women are equally competent to men coupled with “the widely

shared belief that women were suited for lighter and less-skilled
tasks” (Hershatter, 2004, p. 1021; Leung, 2003) or the promotion of
gender equality coupled with the confinement of women to positions
of lesser power (Hershatter, 2004). Claiming equality when true
equality is not exactly what is promoted is likewise a common pat-
tern found within not only the accounts of the women’s empower-
ment activists but the accounts of many other interviewees of the
current study as well.
However, the women’s activists reveal an additional type of con-
tradiction, one that is not as readily found in state-driven Chinese
discourse. This contradiction results from activists’ attempts to im-
prove women’s status while at the same time attempting to preserve
Tibetan culture, defend Tibetan culture against accusations of back-
wardness, and maintain Tibetan social unity and cohesiveness. The
need to preserve Tibetan culture has been discussed above. Addi-
tionally, in a world in which state discourse portrays Han as more
modern, progressive, and enlightened than the more backwards so-
cieties of ethnic minorities (Barabantseva, 2009; Yi, 2005), the activists
appear acutely aware that acknowledgement of Tibetan women’s
low status could lend credence to notions of Tibetans as backwards
and uncivilized. As a result, they tend to deny, justify, or sidestep
discussion of practices within Tibetan society that create gender ine-
quality, apparently in an attempt to maintain a dignified face of Ti-
betan society to outsiders. Finally, the activists’ fear of social dishar-
mony within Tibetan communities is another reason behind their
opposition to claims that Tibetan cultural practices have caused gen-
der inequality, as such claims could instigate conflict between wom-
en and men. At a time when Tibetan culture is felt to be in decline,
Tibetan political protesters have emphasized that unity among Ti-
betans is vital. While the activists of the current study made no polit-
ical statements whatsoever, their concerns appear to mirror those of
protesters in this one regard, that is, in their concern with maintain-
ing unity within Tibetan communities.
The following discussion is organized around the principal con-
cerns of the women’s empowerment activists, as voiced in their ac-
counts, namely (1) Tibetan cultural preservation or a return to tradi-
tional values, (2) community unity, and (3) advancement, particular-
ly economic and educational advancement, of Tibetan society. We
shall additionally look at the contradictory pressures faced by activ-
ists, leading to tensions and contradictions in their descriptions of
Tibetan women’s status.

The Discourse of Tibetan Women 131


This paper is based on a 15-month period of fieldwork in one region

of Amdo. The paper is drawn from research looking into domestic
violence among Tibetan households in the study region, involving
in-depth, unstructured interviews with 76 women and 24 men. In-
terviewees were purposively sampled for a range of age and educa-
tion levels as well as both rural and urban-based residence. Not all
interviewees were victims or perpetrators of domestic violence, but a
significant minority of interviewees were. For ethical reasons, the
research project did not focus on one particular village or township.
Rather, various farming villages, nomadic settlements, and towns on
the northeastern edge of the Tibetan plateau were visited.
None of the research interactions were conducted through a trans-
lator. All interviews were conducted directly in Tibetan, or in Chi-
nese if the interviewee was more comfortable speaking Chinese. In-
terview recordings were also transcribed directly in their original
language, so as to avoid the changes of meaning that come with
translation into English.
While in-depth unstructured interviews with women and men
were the core of this research, this research was additionally in-
formed by many years of personal experience and interaction with
the study region, as well as by participant observation of family life,
conducted while staying with local families.
Please note that while the research giving rise to this paper is a re-
search project focused on domestic violence, this paper is not in fact
discussing the dynamics of family life or of domestic violence. Ra-
ther, while women and men were interviewed regarding their per-
sonal marital relationships and personal experience of domestic vio-
lence, an additional group of interviewees termed ‘women’s em-
powerment activists’ were also interviewed. This group of inter-
viewees have provided the data upon which the current paper is
based. Women’s empowerment activists are individuals who have
engaged in activism to enhance gender equality or to improve wom-
en’s opportunities and the prominence of women in Tibetan society.
The accounts of six women’s empowerment activists are dis-
cussed within this paper. The women’s empowerment activists are
Tibetan women and men residing on the northeastern edge of the
Tibetan plateau. They are individuals who have undertaken inde-
pendent, private initiatives by which they have created spaces dedi-
cated to women’s writing and publishing, published articles on the
topic of women’s status, led seminars in which women university
students were urged to become independent and self-reliant, given
lectures on the importance of treating women well, or expanded ed-

132 Revue d'Etudes Tibétaines

ucational opportunities for girls.4 In particular, this paper looks into

the activists’ views on Tibetan women’s rights and status, in an at-
tempt to understand why these individuals have worked to empow-
er women, and why violence against women has not been part of the
focus of their work.
For this paper, information from participant observation and in-
formal conversations conducted during fieldwork is drawn upon for
supplementary or background information, as is information from
interviews with those individuals who are not women’s empower-
ment activists.

Tibetan Cultural Preservation or

a Return to Traditional Values

Activists felt that modern changes to Tibetan society have been ac-
companied by deeply troubling consequences. They therefore spoke
of a general context in which Tibetan culture and identity are facing
the prospect of disintegration. As described by one activist, “Tibetan
people are deteriorating, and so is our nationality. Now everyone is
thinking about how our culture is deteriorating. In general, culture is
something to be developed, but now we don’t even think about de-
velopment. It is deteriorating” (male activist). As this activist further
explained, “if people continue to deteriorate, our nationality will
turn into a race only and everything else, our culture, will be com-
mon [i.e. shared or indistinct]” (male activist).5 As stated by another

[Many people don’t pay attention to traditional Tibetan forms of

knowledge because] they don’t know about traditional culture.
And secondly they have studied the culture which opposes tradi-
tions…Many people say that you can’t send kids to school because
they come back home and don’t like religion or their ethnic group

Please note that a total of 14 women’s empowerment activists were interviewed
for the current study, but only the accounts of 6 of these individuals were ana-
lyzed in depth for this paper. The conclusions of this paper, however, follow a
number of similarities found in the accounts of most of the 14 women’s activists.
Accounts of declining Tibetan traditions are common. According to one account,
for example, an elderly traditional Tibetan medicine doctor was brought to tears
by losses within the Tibetan medical tradition, whereby medical students in cur-
rent times do not understand the basic values underpinning medical practice
(conference entitled “The Transmission of Tibetan Medicine: Spiritual Growth,
Questions of Method and Contemporary Practice,” 2014). Other accounts, in-
cluding those of one of the women’s activists, refer to loss of language and tradi-
tional knowledge due to nomad resettlement policies.

The Discourse of Tibetan Women 133

or their traditional culture. But the students aren’t to blame, be-

cause it’s actually the parents’ responsibility. If you send your kid
to the monastery, he would turn into a religious person. If you send
them to a place where they only study Tibetan knowledge, they will
care about this. If you send him to a place where he will only learn
Han Chinese culture, then if this culture does not become a part of
his thinking, it means he didn’t really study. If he comes home and
says he is not interested in Tibetan traditions, it is a sign that he has
studied [Han Chinese] culture. (male activist)

This negative impact of schooling was felt by this activist to accrue

from both those schools which educate students primarily via les-
sons conducted in the Chinese language as well as from Tibetan-
medium schools (male activist). External reports have also criticized
education in China, including Tibetan-medium education, as giving
Tibetan students “little insight into their own culture and history”
(State Department Report on Human Rights: 2013, 2014). Likewise, one
activist spoke about the younger generation’s lack of awareness of
Tibetan traditions, and of a decline in the morality of Tibetans’ be-
havior. He is therefore intent on promoting a return to traditional
Tibetan values.
Some of the activists in fact feared that further freedoms for wom-
en would lead women down the negative path men have already
begun to travel in modern times. As modern life has caused men to
drink more, gamble more, abandon their household responsibilities
more, and engage more in extramarital affairs, the fear is that women
will simply follow along this negative path if they are allowed more
freedom and rights. Additionally, in the case of both women’s activ-
ists and other interviewees, a fear that improvements in women’s
status might go too far or in some cases has already gone too far is
apparent. This fear caused interviewees to voice worries that men
may become subordinate to women, mothers-in-law may become
subordinate to daughters-in-law, women may give up their family
responsibilities once they become successful, women may begin be-
lieving they do not need to work hard, and women may begin to
drink and gamble and fight. One informant noted a common fear is
that rises in women’s status will cause women to begin engaging in
marital infidelity.6 Other possibilities, whereby the focus shifts from
controlling women’s freedom to a change in community norms or
practices such that more pressure is placed upon men to act respon-
sibly and respectfully, are not voiced by the activists.
Some of the interviewees indicated men are far more likely to engage in marital
infidelity than women, and that men’s infidelity is more acceptable than wom-

134 Revue d'Etudes Tibétaines

We can see in the above accounts that some of the activists hold to
notions that women must sacrifice by working hard for their families
and should not become ‘too’ dominant within the household. It is
not surprising, then, that the activists believe the traditional roles of
women and men should not see a radical shift or equalization, a be-
lief that appears to be built upon an inherent fear that women’s
rights could cause women to take on the harmful behavioral traits of
men, could upset the balance and structure of Tibetan families, and
could cause an unwelcome decline in behaviors by which Tibetans
remain distinctly identifiable as ‘Tibetan.’ One activist, for example,
believes patrilocal marriage, the most normative type of marriage in
the study region, is more desirable than matrilocal marriage because
men should not be expected to adjust to a family other than their
own, while such pressures on women are acceptable and proper.
Activists also argued that women’s modesty and respect for others,
and their ritually-sanctioned humility vis-à-vis others, must always
be maintained. Some of the activists therefore emphasized that no
matter how highly positioned a woman becomes professionally, she
must maintain a distinctly and identifiably Tibetan mode of behavior,
particularly within the home. Thus, according to one activist, “Tibet-
an women have their own wonderful way of doing things, and this
cannot be destroyed, like taking care of guests, being respectful to
your husband and the elderly…Even if you are the chairman of the
country, you still can’t destroy this” (female activist). Another activ-
ist likewise stated that “even if you are the president of a country,
women should not change the appearance and manner they have
always had” (female activist).

Community Unity

The activists appear to feel a deep-seated anxiety that a feminist

push for women’s rights and vocal calls for a change in the treatment
of women will cause cleavages and conflict, thereby causing detri-
ment to the unity of Tibetan society. Activists’ dislike of complaints
around women’s household labor burden likewise appears to come
from a belief that such complaints will cause marital discord, thus
undercutting the unity and harmony of families. As a result, the ac-
tivists tended to voice a certain disregard for those who openly and
vocally push for women’s rights or an improvement to women’s
status. As one activist explained:

I like to do the work of my family and office myself, because if I do

everything myself, I do not harm others a lot. I think no matter

The Discourse of Tibetan Women 135

what work you do, sincerity and good intentions are primary. Good
intentions and demeanor are the key to the door of rights. There is
no meaning in struggling for rights in a way such that women and
men argue with jealousy towards each other. (female activist)

As stated by one activist:

When those women from my home area who have some learning
argue for women’s rights, they talk about how women from my ar-
ea are not allowed to touch race horses and how they have to do the
dishes…Riding horses is by nature men’s role and women don’t
need to touch the horses…Doing the dishes is the work of women.
Men also have their work, so it’s right for women to do this work. If
everyone undertakes their own responsibility, it’s beneficial for the
happiness of the family. Otherwise by arguing for rights you just
cause conflict with your husband. (male activist)

The point is not to refrain from promoting an improvement in wom-

en’s status altogether, but to promote women’s rights in the correct
way. The correct way, for the activists, involves maintaining social
and family cohesion even whilst attempting to empower women.
This maintenance of cohesion requires refraining from accusing men
or pointing the finger at many specific social practices.
A number of self-immolators and political protesters in Tibetan
areas have called for unity among Tibetans, or have stressed the im-
portance of strengthening Tibetan culture and identity7. “Don’t for-
get you are Tibetans,” states a message left behind by one self-
immolator8, implying in this case the self-immolator’s belief that the
current period is a critical juncture in Tibetan history in which the
very identity of Tibetan people is in danger of disintegration. The
women’s activists’ concerns around pre-empting any discourses that
could lead to conflict in Tibetan society therefore echoes self-
immolators’ and protesters’ concerns, and is likely derived from the
notion that the strength and continued existence of Tibetan culture
and identity requires unity.

Reference: “Hundreds of Tibetans Detained in Chamdo Over ‘Unity’
Campaign,” 2014, Labrang monk Jayang Jinpa reflects on his daring 2008 protest, 2013,
“Self-immolator leaves message of ‘unity and solidarity’ among Tibetans,” 2012,
“Tibetan Comedian Released from Jail in Poor Health,” 2014.
Reference: “17-year-old self-immolator’s last note calls for the Dalai Lama's
return and Tibet's independence,” 2012.

136 Revue d'Etudes Tibétaines

Economic and Educational Advancement

of Tibetan Society

In their activities to empower women, the activists are primarily

concerned with enhancing women’s educational and professional
attainment. Thus, the women’s activists have focused their activities
on projects in the sphere of women’s education, women’s health,
writing and publishing opportunities for women, and improving
women’s confidence to strive towards educational and professional
goals. On the one hand, activists indicated, intelligent and capable
women make for intelligent and capable mothers who can raise their
children to succeed. Additionally, women joining men in the sphere
of professional achievement appears to be seen as a means for Tibet-
ans to thrive, to not be left behind in an economically developing
Thus, one activist made the point that women must begin achiev-
ing as much as men for the benefit of Tibetan society as a whole. She
therefore stated the following:

Every couple is equal, both members of a couple have PhDs, both

have knowledge, both are office workers, both are bosses, or both
have the exact same status. If all families are like this then society
gets better, and if society gets better so does the ethnic group. This
level has not been reached yet. [We are] still far below [this]. (fe-
male activist)

This activist is saying it is no longer acceptable to allow only men to

achieve in extra-domestic spheres while women do not achieve
prominent positions and visible success. Rather, both men and wom-
en need to achieve equally so that Tibetan society as a whole can
According to another women’s activist:

To improve the capability of people, the capability of women first

needs to improve…For [economically] developed places, from the
time a woman is pregnant, [people from those places] have a lot of
methods and knowledge regarding instructing children…The per-
son who stays with children is the mother, and so mothers are key.
Mothers’ behavior, manner of speaking, and lifestyle influence their
children…As the child is growing up, until he/she starts going to
school, the most important person is the mother. (male activist)

One activist, however, focused on the importance of better religious education
for nuns.

The Discourse of Tibetan Women 137

Here, women’s role as mothers is a crucial site upon which to ad-

vance the entire community, not only because mothers’ instruction
fosters the next generation, but also because ‘economically devel-
oped’ communities are particularly knowledgeable about how to
train children well. An inherent sense of competition, and the felt
need for Tibetans to keep up in a world in which other communities
are more advanced, is therefore implied.
Since modernization is the primary aim, activists have attempted
to improve women’s belief in their own capacities, particularly in the
realm of modern economic and professional success. Activists there-
fore place a lot of emphasis on enhancing women’s self-confidence to
strive professionally and academically. For some of the activists, this
means working to provide women with spaces separate from men in
which they can practice or improve their academic skills or skills in
writing and expression.10 As stated by a Tibetan woman who was not
interviewed for the current study but who produced a video promot-
ing Tibetan women’s rights, “[Women] are always lowering them-
selves, saying ‘I can’t do anything because I’m a woman.’ We need to
say ‘I can,’ and then we can help our people” (“Radio Interview with
T. Drolma,” 2010). One women’s activist described her advice to fe-
male university students that it is important “to take initiative…, [to]
study hard, and [to] reject the idea that…one should always depend
on a husband or that men should support women.” This activist
went on to state that “women should have their own ability and
competence. And on top of being a great woman, if you have com-
passion, then you can be of benefit to society, your ethnic group, and
to human beings” (female activist). Women’s confidence, independ-
ence, and achievement is therefore promoted, with concerns for the
strength or benefit of Tibetan society at large never far from activists’
When activists present examples of successful women, as a means
of enhancing Tibetan women’s self-confidence, they focus primarily
on modern forms of success. Thus, a women’s activist who conducts
educational training programs for Tibetan girls stated the following:

One activist, for example, stated that women need their own space to write in
order for women to get the chance to catch up to men in skill and to think that
they are capable of publishing. Another activist conducts educational training
programs for girls, which he conducts separately from his educational training
programs for boys. He explained the reasons behind his actions as follows: “By
specifically separating women,…it makes you think that girls could rival the
boys in singing or leading or any way that your potential is revealed. The girls
can speak courageously. They are even better than [other girls] in playing ball
games. Everyone’s the same and equal because boys aren’t there to keep the girls

138 Revue d'Etudes Tibétaines

I brought a Tibetan at Harvard to my [area to talk to the female

students attending my training program]…, and I told the students
to work hard, that this woman is a Tibetan and she came from the
most famous school in the world, that she is the same as my stu-
dents…Then I brought the head of Motorola in Asia, and I intro-
duced this woman to my students and told them she was the head
of one of the famous companies of Asia, that even though she is a
woman she has this much capability, that the only reason other
women are not like her is because of a lack of opportunities and
lack of study…I also invited the head of education in the American
embassy, a woman with a PhD…to my [area] and told my stu-
dents…she is a leader in the embassy. Nobody can go to America to
study without [her] permission. When schools cooperate with each
other, they have to go through her office. [She] has all that power. [I
told the students] the only difference [between people like her and
my students] is whether or not they study, whether or not they get
opportunities, and whether or not they work hard. I told them there
is no reason for them to think that they are just women, Tibetans, or
nomads. (male activist)

Similarly, the above-mentioned woman who produced a video pro-

moting Tibetan women’s rights stated the following in her video:
“I’d like to say that like foreign women who can even be leaders of
their nations, who are independent and educated – I hope we could
be like that…Our hope is all Tibetan female students will aspire to
these things” (Drolma, 2010).
Given the many examples of strong Tibetan women that exist
within Tibetan history, it is surprising that the activists prefer to look
largely to the example of Han and Western women as proof that
women can be as capable of success as men. While the activists are
clearly intent on improving the self-confidence of Tibetan women, it
is surprising they do not additionally choose to emphasize the great
achievements of women in Tibetan history. Instead, rather than the
historical achievements of Tibetan women religious masters (Allione,
2000; Diemberger, 2007), female historical figures who displayed
strength in adverse family circumstances (!་ཡེ་བ&་བྷོ།[GyayeTrabo], n.d.),
or Tibetan women who have been involved in politics within the
royal court (Diemberger, 2011), it seems the activists need successes
more associated with modern educational and professional achieve-
ment to use as examples. In an article published by one of the wom-
en’s activists, for example, the author emphasizes the publishing,
academic, and non-profit public health activities that women have

The Discourse of Tibetan Women 139

been undertaking in recent years as evidence for her argument that

women have the capacity to succeed.11
The activists’ drive to economically and professionally modernize
Tibetan society is not necessarily in contradiction to their concern for
cultural preservation, as the two may be seen as mutually reinforcing
goals rather than disparate aims. If Tibetans as a group are strong,
they not only maintain a dignified face to the outside world, as a
group they also gain the skills to compete economically with other
ethnic groups and therefore gain the necessary strength to survive in
a world in which Tibetans as a community are in danger of being
consumed and subsumed by both decadent urban values and Sini-
cizing forces. As described above, activists spoke of the loss of Tibet-
an culture and decline in morality of Tibetans brought with urbani-
zation and economic development. In this context, what we see here
is a drive to modernize or change only as much as necessary to gain
the strength to withstand forces that could bring about the decline of
Tibet. According to the activists, therefore, women should succeed
educationally and professionally, and become intelligent and compe-
tent, while at the same time holding to Buddhist values and main-
taining their traditional role within the household.

Blaming Women for Their Own Low Status

Activists voiced the argument that women need not struggle for
rights by arguing or debating about this topic. Rather, they argued,
women should simply diligently study and work, becoming success-
ful in extra-domestic spheres, and this will automatically bring status
and esteem to individual women who deserve it. The implication,
then, is that women are not to attain status by calling for men’s be-
havior to change, or by calling for norms and patterns of household
or social power relations to shift. Rather, despite their heavy work-
load, despite socialization teaching women they will be incompetent
from a young age, and despite active disparagement of women’s
voices and women who express strong opinions12, the activists still
indicate that any problems of women’s low status are the individual
problems of women themselves. This argument is in part a means by
which to sidestep a focus on issues that could instigate community
divisions, a concern of the activists that was described above. This
This Tibetan language article is not cited here for the purpose of maintaining the
anonymity of the interviewee.
The gender-unequal social phenomena listed in this sentence were phenomena
described by the women’s activists as well as by other interviewees. The activists,
however, refrained from labelling these phenomena with the term ‘inequality.’

140 Revue d'Etudes Tibétaines

argument also serves the purpose of focusing on only those limited

aspects of women’s empowerment which the activists wish to focus
on, so that Tibetan traditions can be maintained while the ethnic
group is simultaneously strengthened. Finally, this argument is in
part the result of beliefs held by the activists that are in some ways
deeply conventional and therefore uninterested in altering attitudes
towards women in society.
While activists referred to women’s heavy burden of household
labor as problematic, the significant amount of labor which women
undertake for their households was not in itself deemed sufficient to
entitle women to equal attention and respect as men, or equal say in
household decision-making. Rather, the activists argued that women
should display exceptional capacities in order to be worthy of treat-
ment equal to that which men receive. As described by one activist:

You have to admit it when you are not competent. If you are com-
petent, you automatically get respect. If you can do all the work
and get all the money for the family, then the whole family will re-
spect you and listen to you…For example, if you are a woman
without achievement in your work, who doesn’t know how to
manage the family, who doesn’t know how to cook well, then these
women are just saying empty words if they say they need rights.
Those women do not have much right to talk about rights…Women
should elevate their own capacity and foster self-respect…If you
can develop your own ability in study, work, family, and connec-
tions, the members of society will believe in gender equali-
ty…When this level has been reached, there won’t be much necessi-
ty to struggle for rights. (female activist)

As this activist further explained, “if you have capability, needless to

say you will get respect from your family, and at the same time you
will get rights and equality. For example, everyone will look upon an
athlete who is impressive at running and jumping…as an example to
follow” (female activist). Several other activists of the current study
likewise voiced the notion that rights or status is not something that
can be given to women by others. Rather, they argued, women
should simply work hard and become successful if they want more
This argument, like suzhi discourse, individualizes the problem of
low status to individuals’ own capacities. In so doing, the activists
pre-empt the potentially painful realization that broader, deep-
seated problems within Tibetan society, extending to the attitudes of
all community members, can harm women. The picture we are left
with is one in which men automatically deserve decision-making

The Discourse of Tibetan Women 141

power 13 and attention within the household, while women must

prove exceptional capabilities beyond the heavy burden of labor they
are already undertaking in order to prove they are worthy of an im-
provement in the respect and attention they are given by family
The activists appear to have come to this conclusion in part be-
cause so many more educational and professional opportunities are
extended to women currently than was the case in the recent past. As
stated by one women’s activist, for example, “now women are sent
to school as often as men, so women should grasp this opportunity
and not allow it to get lost…If you don’t make use of this opportuni-
ty, then you are to blame” (female activist).
Other victim-blaming attitudes of the activists likewise follow
those aspects of suzhi discourse that tie poor treatment or low status
to individuals’ own inferior characters. One activist, for example,
stated, “Since women are meek, they suffer a loss when they are giv-
en away in [patrilocal] marriage. People think…even if men [marry
matrilocally], they are courageous and so do not suffer a loss” (male
activist). According to this activist, then, women’s poor treatment in
patrilocal marriage is a result of their own inferior character traits.
Men, according to this activist, are treated better in matrilocal mar-
riage because of their inherently superior characters. In another ex-
ample, some activists justified men’s higher status as being the natu-
ral product of men’s physical or mental superiority to women.

Defending Tibetan Culture and

Avoiding the Label of Gender Inequality

Activists appeared acutely aware of the possibility that, if Tibetan

women were labelled as suffering from low status, Tibetan society
could be labelled backward and inferior to other ethnic groups.
Many activists therefore denied that gender inequality is a major
problem within Tibetan society. The activists stressed that women’s
heavy work burden or parents’ tendency to send only sons to school
are not mean-spirited activities undertaken in the spirit of deliberate
cruelty to girls and women, but are instead the unintended products
of historical circumstance. Practices in Tibetan society deemed better
for women than the practices of Han or other ethnic groups were
also emphasized, as was the variability of practices within families

The prototypical scenario in the study region, as described by both activists and
other interviewees, is that men hold primary decision-making power within

142 Revue d'Etudes Tibétaines

and communities, a variability which activists argued leaves some or

many Tibetan women treated well. While it is important to note that
Tibetan women’s treatment or standing is better in some ways than
that experienced by women of other ethnic groups, activists stressed
this point because it is a way to sidestep the very real problems that
the activists themselves described, so as to maintain a dignified face
of Tibetan society to outsiders. Thus, despite at times providing elo-
quent descriptions of patterns of gender-based oppression, the wom-
en’s activists wanted to convey that Tibetan society is no worse than
any other, and that any problematic phenomena that do exist within
Tibetan society do not constitute major problems. Despite describing
problematic phenomena, then, the activists were determined not to
label those phenomena with the stigmatizing term ‘inequality.’
Moreover, activists’ descriptions of condescending or restrictive
treatment of women were not followed by the indignance and oppo-
sition to these phenomena which one might typically expect from
feminist discourse. For example, in his description of nuns’ far fewer
opportunities for religious education than the opportunities which
monks receive, one activist said, “We Tibetans say people have suf-
fered a loss, but we don’t say people don’t have rights” (male activ-
ist). This activist is therefore pointedly refusing to tie the situation of
nuns’ lack of opportunities to an indignant, critical, or vociferous call
for women’s rights. Even when acknowledging unfair practices or
outcomes for women, he chooses to use phrases such as ‘suffering a
loss’ so as to avoid tying the phenomenon in question to the stigma-
tizing terms ‘lack of rights’ or ‘gender inequality.’
Activists also stressed that Tibetans’ treatment of women does not
come from a place of deliberate cruelty. For example, one women’s
empowerment activist stated the following:

Nowadays no group in the world spends more time working than

Tibetan women…
Q: …Is women’s larger work burden a sign of gender inequality?
A: No. Each nationality is different and has its own way of doing
things. So it’s not that women had to do most of the work because
women were [deemed to be] bad. It was because traditionally food
preparation was women’s work and heavy labor was men’s
work…When it came to difficult things like hunting animals, men
had to go…This was the way of life of our ethnic group. Also, for
example, in the past…you had to fight wars, and it was men who
fought wars…Though [women’s] work was not hard, it is work you
do constantly without much time off…Some people say husbands
sit around, eat food, and then go out, but this is totally untrue. It’s
not that husbands are sitting around to deliberately make all wom-
en work. This is an opinion that is only looking at the issue from

The Discourse of Tibetan Women 143

one angle. This is not a disparagement of women, but is rather the

way of life of our ethnic group. (male activist)14

This activist is emphasizing that women’s heavy burden of labor is a

product of historical circumstance, and therefore not deliberately
designed to discriminate against women, and that individual Tibet-
ans are also not actively or consciously attempting to disparage
women but rather following the traditional ways handed to them by
previous generations. This activist’s point, therefore, is to stress that
Tibetan society and people are not terrible, and in so doing he feels
the need to not only refrain from vocal criticism of women’s heavy
burden of labor, but to counteract and deny such criticisms from
others as well.
In another defense of Tibetan culture, one women’s empower-
ment activist stated the following:

Men are sent to school more often than women. This is not because
parents are differentiating between men and women. In my village,
there probably isn’t anyone who commands a girl not to go to
school. But in the past, Tibetan livelihood was based on the natural
world, and…there wasn’t a lot of industry or farming. Since men
were better at struggling with nature, like taming wild animals and
hunting, the impression that even if you send girls to school they
won’t be able to do anything has seeped into the character of all Ti-
betans. So a lot of women weren’t sent to school. (female activist)

This is a rather convoluted argument which, by claiming parents did

not ‘command’ women not to go to school, attempts to obfuscate the
obvious fact that it is parents who decide whether or not to send
their daughters to school, and to only send boys to school is an ex-
ample of unequal treatment. However, this activist’s point is that
inequality is not the result of a deliberately mean-spirited attempt to
be cruel to women and girls. Rather, it is a less conscious product of
history and tradition. By emphasizing this point, she is attempting to
defend the nature of Tibetans as a people.
Other activists also spoke in direct contradiction to themselves, of-
ten in convoluted ways. One activist, for example, made the follow-
ing statement:

In his defense of women’s lack of educational opportunities, this activist further
stated that “if you forcibly go and look for reasons and say this [lack of opportu-
nities] is a sign that women are scorned, there might be things to say on that
front, but…it’s not that women have been deliberately denigrated. It’s because
traditions formed that way” (male activist).

144 Revue d'Etudes Tibétaines

In religion, it is said that women's bodies are dirty and men's bodies
are cleaner. Although at the beginning that was said to a particular
person or group, I think that actually it is absolutely not the view
[in religion] that women’s and men’s bodies have a difference in
cleanliness. (male activist)

This is a curious statement, in which an assertion is directly followed

by a negation of the first assertion. In this case, the activist appears to
be attempting to obscure the existence of inegalitarian portrayals of
women so as to defend Tibetan culture. Similarly, one women’s ac-
tivist said patrilocal marriage is not difficult for women because
women no longer have much work to do. At another point, she said
she feels sorry for rural women because they must work so hard. In
this case, it appears the activist was attempting to hide her aware-
ness of the harms caused by women’s heavy burden of labor, be-
cause her aim is to sidestep and obscure the existence of this social
The contradictions found within activists’ accounts tend to rest on
the dual but sometimes contradictory goals of women’s advance-
ment on the one hand and Tibetans’ unity and cultural preservation
on the other. That is, activists face the sometimes competing pres-
sures of, on the one hand, their work to ameliorate the effects of so-
cialization which hampers women’s achievement and confidence
while, on the other hand, needing to refrain from openly opposing
unfair social pressures on women so as to defend Tibetan culture
and maintain social cohesion (see figure below).15

As the above-mentioned woman who has produced and distributed a video on
Tibetan women’s rights states, “I am only claiming rights for Tibetan women but
not demanding destruction of Tibetan tradition” (Drolma, 2010). Her statement
reveals the tensions and opposing forces and priorities which Tibetan women’s
empowerment activists must contend with.

The Discourse of Tibetan Women 145

Thus, one activist stated she does not adhere to the opinion that
women’s housework burden is a matter of gender inequality, then
later spoke about the problem of women’s unfair burden of house-
work and the need for change in this regard. Denying gender ine-
quality in housework prevents perceptions that she is attacking men
and therefore maintains social cohesion. However, a reduction in
women’s burden of housework could allow women more time to
dedicate to the goal of professional achievement.16 This same activist
first spoke of the importance of maintaining Tibetan tradition, such
that women should serve tea to others and respect men and elders.
Later on, however, when I questioned her further on this point, she
directly contradicted her earlier statements by arguing that women
think they are too inferior and should not prioritize the clothing and
food of guests and men as more important than themselves. This
activist therefore first emphasized cultural preservation, but later
emphasized the need for women’s self-confidence. A desire to en-
hance women’s self-confidence and achievement while at the same
time preserving Tibetan tradition leads this activist to veer back and
forth between positions in this way.

This activist may be attempting to mask her true views on the matter, as to open-
ly call for a change in the household gender division of labor would give rise to
criticism of the activist herself, and may also lead to accusations of undermining
Tibetan culture. Indeed, this activist spoke of the bad reputation she has ac-
quired due to social perceptions that she promotes feminist views.

146 Revue d'Etudes Tibétaines

Similarly, while this activist argued that rights derive from wom-
en’s own competence and hard work, and therefore that rights can-
not be given to women, she also listed the practice of polyandrous
marriage, occurring in some Tibetan areas, as a positive aspect of
Tibetan culture because the women in these families are ‘given’
rights. “So for these people there is no reason to talk about freedom
and rights. Their families give it to them and they’re happy,” she
said (female activist). Yet this activist also argued that rights are not
something which can be ‘given’ to women at all. Thus, this statement
is in direct contradiction to her earlier argument. Despite the contra-
diction, however, both arguments are in line with activists’ goals.
The first point, that women must become successful because rights
cannot be given to women, argues for women’s rights in a way that
focuses on women’s individual achievement, therefore refraining
from instigating women’s conflict with men or threatening men’s
position in society. The second point, that some Tibetan women are
given all the rights they might need or want, is attempting to empha-
size that Tibetan society has no problem of gender inequality, and is
therefore a statement counteracting stigma for Tibetan society.

A Representative Example

Let us look in some detail at one portion of an activist’s account, as

this account can be taken as a representative example displaying the
various concerns of the women’s empowerment activists. This activ-
ist spoke about King Songtsen Gampo, a revered figure in ancient
Tibetan history. It is well-known that King Songtsen Gampo estab-
lished a rule that women should not be listened to. The activist de-
fended this ruling by arguing that, in ancient times, Tibetan women
did not travel, stayed at home, and “had absolutely no opportunity
to study or go outside [their home areas]” (female activist). As a re-
sult, she argued, women’s lack of experience and travel made them
short-sighted. Therefore, according to this activist, not listening to
women was appropriate in ancient times, and is even sometimes
appropriate today. This activist further argued that women’s biology
causes their mental inferiority to men, and that women prefer to be
dependent on husbands because “Tibetan women have lazy think-
ing.” Women’s inferior mental capacities and women’s inferior opin-
ions are, according to this activist, a result of women’s biology as
well as of historical patterns by which Tibetan women relied on men
to earn money. The conclusion of this activist’s arguments is that
women should stop ‘having lazy thinking’ and instead grasp the
opportunities for study and professional work which they have re-

The Discourse of Tibetan Women 147

cently been given; women should therefore study hard and work
hard to earn money on their own.
Thus, while this activist aims to enhance women’s independence
and success, she also clearly believes women to be innately inferior
to men. In addition, it may be important to note that this activist’s
arguments are factually inaccurate. Firstly, women work incredibly
hard for their households. The material welfare and prosperity of a
household is largely dependent on women’s work. Thus butter and
cheese made by women is sold for money, women are often at least
partially involved in the care of livestock, a primary source of wealth
for Tibetan nomads, while in some farming areas women are consid-
ered to be better at digging for the lucrative medicinal plant known
as ‘caterpillar fungus,’ and are therefore the individuals doing the
hard labor of collecting the fungus. One might easily describe this as
a situation in which household prosperity depends on women, and
household men in fact depend on women. Moreover, while some of
the above-mentioned activities, such as digging for caterpillar fun-
gus, have grown increasingly common and lucrative in current times,
interviewees consistently stated that certain activities, such as mak-
ing butter and cheese, or weeding farming fields, have always been
undertaken by women. Thus, it is rather inaccurate to claim wom-
en’s material prosperity has been entirely dependent on men within
Tibetan history. While men are primarily responsible for travelling to
towns and cities so as to sell household products for cash, women
have been significantly involved in producing those products in the
first place.
Furthermore, this activist’s argument that historically Tibetan
women had no opportunities to study or travel appears patently
false, as she herself reveals at other points in her interview. Thus, she
mentioned that, in ancient times, the daughters and wives of kings
and famous people had the opportunity to study. Other examples
within Tibetan history of women’s travel, study, involvement in poli-
tics, or even engaging in warfare are easily found. Examples of re-
nowned female religious practitioners and teachers are many, such
as A-yu Khandro, Machig Lapdron, Yeshe Tsogyal, and Nangsa
Obum, some of whom studied with religious masters and also trav-
elled widely (Allione, 2000; Diemberger, 2007; Kemmerer, 2011;
Schneider, 2010). Although we must point out that many of these
historical figures faced many barriers at the hands of parents, hus-
bands, and elders who tried to restrict their freedom to undertake a
religious life (Allione, 2000; Diemberger, 2007), to claim that women
never had the opportunity to study or travel, and thereby learned to
be lazy, intellectually weak, and dependent, is not borne out by the
evidence. Moreover, women historical figures, including those alive

148 Revue d'Etudes Tibétaines

in the 1950s and 60s, have been involved in political intrigue and
even battle, proving themselves astute and conniving in these activi-
ties, though they were not always celebrated for their feats
(Diemberger, 2011; Karmay, 1998; Schneider, 2010; Van Schaik, 2011;
!་ཡེ་བ&་བྷོ།[GyayeTrabo], n.d.). Thus, a dependent and inferior mentality
has by no means been universal among Tibetan women.
We might consider the above examples to be exceptional cases of
unusual or unusually positioned women. However, even in the case
of more ordinary women, the above-mentioned activist’s argument
does not seem to hold. For example, an 84-year-old interviewee of
the current study spoke about independently undertaking a long and
dangerous journey of pilgrimage to Lhasa when she was 20 years old,
joining a group of other pilgrims for the journey and begging for
food or working for rich families along the way to earn her subsist-
ence. This interviewee said many young women travelled the way
she did at the time. Moreover, the fact that the study region has a
long history of banditry, tribal rivalry, and shifting political alliances
(Costello, 2008; Jabb, 2009; Nietupski, 2011; Pirie, 2007, 2012), as well
as poor roads and means of transport in the recent past, suggests that
young men were likely to have been away from home for extended
periods of time for warfare or trade. Women, then, would have po-
tentially been left to care for all household matters with relative in-
dependence at these times. At least around the year 1958, as older
interviewees and informants revealed, in some villages only women
and children were left behind after men were killed and imprisoned
in the fighting of the time. This would also suggest that women un-
dertook a lot of independent responsibility for their families’ liveli-
hoods at this time.
The reasons contradictions and inaccurate assessments exist in the
above-mentioned activist’s account are twofold. One, King Songtsen
Gampo is a highly revered figure within Tibetan history and the in-
terviewee likely feels it unthinkable to criticize him, as to do so
would be to go against an honored and revered symbol of Tibetan
civilization. Thus, she must find an argument to defend the king’s
rule prohibiting listening to women. Such a defense is in fact a de-
fense of Tibetan culture and civilization. Therefore she must claim
the rule is neither unfair nor unjust even though it is clearly inegali-
tarian. Secondly, this interviewee’s adherence to beliefs that women
are mentally and emotionally inferior to men is strong and therefore
colors her assessment of Tibetan society and history. Such beliefs can
easily reinforce the tendency, found among the other activists as well,
to individualize the problem of women’s low status such that a lack
of rights is deemed to result from the faults of individual women
rather than from larger societal structures. This activist’s views, then,

The Discourse of Tibetan Women 149

are representative of the main themes emerging from the group of

women’s empowerment activists, in that she does not adhere to a
strong feminist ethic, believes opportunities and esteem for women
are a product of modern times and modern forces, blames women
for their own disempowerment, is intent on defending Tibetan tradi-
tion and culture, but is also intent on promoting the value that wom-
en grasp educational and professional opportunities and become
successful in these spheres.


While the women’s activists draw on a Chinese discursive environ-

ment to understand and respond to the problems they apprehend
within Tibetan society, their objectives are not entirely unique. As
described by Dawa Lokyitsang, for example, Tibetans’ advocacy for
women’s empowerment in exile in India has until recently been
characterized by a focus upon access to educational opportunities
and development of skills while largely ignoring issues such as vio-
lence against women (2014). Moreover, the ideas espoused by the
activists bear similarities to global discourses (often termed ‘neolib-
eral’) which frame individual economic success as contingent on the
development of professional skills and flexible responses to shifting
economic environments. These discourses can have the effect of
masking the disadvantages of broader structural factors such as race
and class, as well as the vulnerabilities brought about by a fluid and
changing economic landscape (Freeman, 2007; Roberts & Mahtani,
Along the same lines, the women’s empowerment activists of the
current study mask the existence of broader social patterns of gen-
der-based oppression by contending that women’s status is a prod-
uct of individuals’ capabilities alone. They describe a social envi-
ronment in which gender-based oppression is alive and well, but do
not express indignance towards this context. In response to my ques-
tions, the activists described and explained problems of gender ine-
quality inherent in social norms and practices. Yet they were not par-
ticularly concerned with dismissive or belitting treatment of women.
This is not suprising, since the activists’ primary aim is not improv-
ing the treatment of women, but rather strengthening the Tibetan
nationality. For the activists, this strengthening is to be achieved by
enhancing the prominence and professional success of women, while
at the same time refraining from actions that may cause conflict with
men, disrupt community unity, change women’s household roles, or
threaten men’s position in society. Rather than criticize a social envi-

150 Revue d'Etudes Tibétaines

ronment that serves to dampen women’s confidence, therefore, the

activists prefer to refrain from criticizing society at large, while at the
same time instructing women and girls to believe in themselves
more. They therefore are active in attempts to improve the promi-
nence, educational opportunities, and self-confidence of Tibetan
women and girls, but do not support open complaint or vocal calls
for change.
The late Qing and early Republican-era reformers described
above were operating during a time of national crisis. The over-
whelming issues at hand, for the reformers, were pressures which
had “helped weaken China and expose it to the danger of enslave-
ment by global colonizing forces” (Hershatter, 2004, p. 1029). Similar-
ly, the women’s empowerment activists of the current study express
a sense of crisis in which Tibetans, as an identifiable and distinct
ethnic group claiming a living culture, living traditions, and a proud
history, face the danger of obliteration. Therefore, like the Chinese
reformers of an earlier era, they subordinate feminist priorities in
order to emphasize the task of strengthening the nationality. In the
process, they draw upon state discourses of individual discipline,
modernity, and civilization to argue for a conception of women’s
rights that individualizes women’s low status, framing it as a reflec-
tion of individual women’s own capacities. For the activists, the par-
amount objective is strengthening the nationality, rendering their
conception of women’s rights both limited in scope and victim-
blaming in thrust.


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